All hell broke loose (and how sports helped us through 9/11)

Opinion September 9, 2011 0 Comments

All hell broke loose (and how sports helped us through 9/11)

This week we ran a collection of essays on 9/11. We will run more here online during the weekend.

by Clark Groome

Tuesday mornings were the time when the Chestnut Hill Local was proofread, copy edited and readied for the printer.

On September 11, 2001, I was the paper’s sports editor, so I was in the office at 7:30 a.m. checking the paper’s second section, a responsibility I shared with arts editor Len Lear who would get into the office around 9:30.

About 9 a.m. a staff member arrived with news that a plane had crashed into one of the New York World Trade Center’s towers. Thinking a small private plane, like the accident that had happened at the Empire State Building in 1945, we all went back to work.

I had to check some facts with Michael Caruso, our music critic, and was on the phone with him when he saw on TV that another plane had crashed into the other WTC tower.

At that point, all hell broke loose.

The Local decided to acknowledge the events on its front page, publish as planned, and devote the next week’s issue to the attacks and their impact on the community.

That decision made, I wrote the page-one piece, worked with the other editors and production folk to figure out the new layout and then went on with the regular tasks of proofreading. All this while a small black and white TV kept us apprised of the horrors as they unfolded.

When I’d finished my work for the day, I left the office about 11 a.m. The first notable evidence that this day was different was that there was no one – and I mean no one – on Germantown Avenue. The Hill looked, and felt, like a ghost town.

Frankly, all I wanted to do was get home and call my kids. It was all so surreal.

The Local decided to devote the next week’s entire issue to various stories about the Chestnut Hill community’s response to the events that forever changed how we live. The local folk who died in the World Trade Center, how schools adapted their days, decisions by sports teams at varying levels whether or not to play, and even some “normal” news all had to be covered.

I wrote a piece about how Chestnut Hill Academy and Springside responded to the events. It was particularly relevant because CHA’s ninth grade was on its annual Washington, D.C., field trip, a trip that usually had the group at the Pentagon on Tuesday but this year had them there Monday.

I also was asked to write that week’s editorial. Here’s some of what we said:

Bastards!”

That was the San Francisco Examiner’s headline the day after the terrorists took down four planes, the World Trade Center, part of the Pentagon, more than 5,000 people and the feelings of security of Americans everywhere.

But just who are they and how do we – as individuals and as a nation – respond when we find out?

As the events of last week unfolded, the focus by the investigators was being aimed at Osama bin Laden and members of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia.

Americans are being prepared for what President George W. Bush has said will be a long and painful struggle, a struggle designed not only to get to and punish the perpetrators of the horrors in New York and Washington, but also to root out and put an end to terrorism everywhere.

What is so troubling at the moment is that the surge in patriotism conceals a couple of things about which we should be very cautious: anger and hate.

These two understandable emotions have led some amongst us to single out for violence people who wear different clothes, speak with an accent, come from a foreign country that might be somewhere near where the bad guys lived, have a different religion or simply don’t look like us.

Let’s also always remember that the guy next door who grew up in Calcutta or Islamabad or Kabul and was the beloved grocer or lawyer or doctor on September 10 is still that same fellow today.

Finally, we would do well – as we process the unfathomable horrors of last week – to heed the words of the Very Rev. Nathan Baxter, dean of Washington’s National Cathedral, who said at last Friday’s national prayer service that it is imperative that “We do not become the evil we deplore.”

While clearly life was never really going to return to “normal,” slowly the regular routines began to reappear. As the paper’s sports editor, my main functions were to assign and edit the local stories and to write a column, “From the Sidelines,” whenever something seemed worth commenting on.

In the paper two weeks removed from 9/11 I wrote a column entitled “Laughter and Tears.” Here’s part of it:

 

Tears and laughter have always been part of sport, a truth captured in ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” mantra “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

Ever since those unimaginably horrible events of September 11 the role of sport in our society has been the subject of debate.

Should the games go on as a diversion at a time when the country needs one?”

What’s the right – and safe – thing to do at a time when thousands of people are missing, probably dead, and millions of others devastated by their loss?”

Last week, as things gradually got back to what now passes as normal, the professional teams distinguished themselves with moving tributes to the dead and injured and to those who tirelessly do the unimaginably difficult job of recovering the dead and cleaning up the debris in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

I wanted to find out what it felt like to be in the midst of the people as the healing process began. To that end I went to the Phillies/Braves game last Tuesday and to the pre-season opener for the Flyers on Thursday.

On Tuesday the game – like the one the night before – began with a moving ceremony. Flags were everywhere.

Before the pre-game festivities I’d spent about 15 minutes wandering around the concourse. The fans were quiet, subdued even, more like they were entering a theater or a church than a stadium in which an important game was about to be played.

Larry Shenk, the Phillies’ classy vice president for public relations, had said before Monday’s game that “It’s the human race, not the pennant race, that we’re worried about.”

On my way back to the press box – which is on the fourth level – three people got on the elevator at the same time and all asked for “four.” A woman in the group said, “Four, four, four, that’s just what Moses Malone said” about the number of games it would take the 76ers to win the NBA championship in 1983 (it was actually four, four, five).

I replied, “Moses didn’t say ‘four, four, four’ he said ‘fo’, fo’, fo’.’” Everyone in the elevator cracked up. After a bit, another member of the group said that this was the first time he had heard that in more than a week.

The “that” was laughter. Did it ever feel good.

On Thursday, the Flyers game was preceded by a video produced to Ray Charles’ stirring version of America. That was followed by Philadelphia firemen and policemen holding American flags.

The Flyers and the Rangers lined up together at center ice while the great Lauren Hart sang God Bless America a cappella.

Later … what may have been the most moving response anywhere in the country took place.

During the second intermission, the screens in the middle of the arena showed the beginning of President George W. Bush’s address to Congress, the nation and the world.

When the teams returned to the ice for the start of the third stanza, the President disappeared, with the note that he could be watched on the monitors in the concourse.

The fans would have none of it. They booed – this is Philly, after all – and then they chanted, “Turn it on.” The Flyers did just that.

Teams and fans watched until the President was finished. Then the Flyers and the Rangers agreed to call off the third period, declare the game a 2-2 tie, and lined up for the traditional handshake in the middle of the arena, a tradition usually reserved for the last game of a playoff series.

It was an unforgettable week. It showed what was great about America and how sport in this country often rises to the occasion.

Sport’s unique combination of tears and laughter has never been more needed or more welcome.

At the time of the attacks, the country came together in a way that few had ever experienced. Republicans and Democrats joined on the Capitol steps to sing “God Bless America.”

That unity, alas, didn’t last very long. The politics of personal advancement and partisanship slowly but inexorably took the place of a country joined in common emotions and common purpose.

While most of what was wrought on 9/11 was tragic, the aftermath offered hope that America could again become a united nation.

What I hope for now, a decade later, is that the reflections that will take place on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 will inspire the American people and their elected representatives to again unite to solve the serious problems we as a nation face. If we could do that in the wake of the horrors of the terrorist attacks, certainly we can do it now. That is my hope as we look back and move forward.

 

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